Southeast Asian Studies (SEAS) in China has experienced significant changes in the past twenty years. China's rising political and economic power has stimulated growing demands for better understanding of the wider world, resulting in the rapid development of area studies in recent years. Although SEAS in China predated the relatively recent notion of ‘area studies’ by at least half a century, the boom in area studies has profoundly transformed the field, most notably by attracting a large number of scholars to conduct policy-relevant research. Not only does the ‘policy turn’ reflect shifts of research paradigms in the field of SEAS, but it is also consistent with some larger trends prevailing in China's higher education sector and rapidly changing society in general. This article shows that SEAS in China has grown even more imbalanced, as indicated by the rapid growth of language programmes, absolute domination of short-term policy research, and further marginalisation of humanistic subjects. To respond, Chinese universities have adopted new approaches to SEAS depending on their distinct disciplinary foundations, language coverage, faculty interests, and local governments’ policy preferences.